Over the past week, TBT has reported on an Inspector General audit which revealed that Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge used his county credit card to purchase voter data in his district. Because of Florida s Government in the Sunshine laws, very detailed personal data for more than 19,000 Manatee County residents is now publicly accessible.
The audit focused on several ways in which proper policy for the county credit cards (referred to as PCards) was not followed. According to public records obtained by TBT, Van Ostenbridge was informed last November by Michael Gallen general counsel for the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller (which includes oversight of the IG) that the nearly $1,700 expenditure was determined to have not been for a valid public purpose. Van Ostenbridge was told that he could reimburse the county for the expense but declined, according to contemporaneous notes taken by Gallen.
The clerk s determination was bolstered by an opinion from the law firm of Greenberg Traurig. The firm noted that no other commissioners had made similar expenditures and that the data purchased had an extraordinary amount of detailed voter information that would seem to benefit Van Ostenbridge personally and not the public. In fact, the report noted that ""it appears to be detrimental to residents in the district, as the purchase has potentially caused extensive personal information about individuals in his district to become subject to Florida s broad public records law, at a significant expense of personal privacy.""
Van Ostenbridge claimed that the purchase was made solely for the purpose of a newsletter he wished to create for members of his district. But while the commissioner did start a newsletter shortly after, the level of detail contained in the data he purchased went way beyond email addresses. We re talking about birthdates, cellular and home phone numbers, home address, religious views, voter history, ethnicity, children, home value, net worth, whether they're a ""persuadable"" voter, history of donations to charitable or political organizations, who they likely supported in recent presidential elections, and likely positions on a laundry list of hot-buttoned political issues none of which would be necessary to start a newsletter.
Van Ostenbridge claimed that he didn t understand that he would be receiving such detailed information, and, let s be honest, few people have accused the former rec center employee of having an excess of intelligence or competence either before or after his developer sugar daddy bought him a seat on his county commission. However, this is the same guy who only recently got off probation after getting caught on video stealing property from one of his constituents. Even then, the commissioner refused to acknowledge his wrongdoing, even in the so-called apology letter mandated in his agreement with the state attorney's office. In other words, he doesn t exactly have a history of honesty or integrity to fall back on.
The best reason to doubt that the data was purchased for personal benefit would be the fact that it was ordered in late 2021 and Van Ostenbridge didn t face reelection until 2024. However, the board was in the process of what would be a successful effort to gerrymander District 2 so that a Republican would be able to win the only seat Democrats have held in the modern era. In order to do this, they would have to split the urban core of the county at the Manatee River, making it so that Van Ostenbridge s District 3 would have to absorb a portion of the Democratic stronghold. Under those circumstances, one might very well wish to have extremely detailed data on their existing constituency from which to consider whether that was advisable.
We here at TBT were apparently not the first ones to jump to that conclusion. According to Gallen s notes from Nov. 14, 2022, ""When I informed (County Attorney) Bill (Clague) about the voter data issue, he said that the purchase may be related to redistricting, that it was around that time."" And as for the importance of the commissioner s newsletter, it doesn t appear he made any sort of effort to engage constituents beyond entering the email address from the data purchase. TBT was unable to find any record whatsoever of it being promoted from the dais, on the commissioner s social media, the county homepage, etc.
If you spent that much money creating an email list for less than 20,000 people, wouldn t it make sense to broadly and continuously advertise an opt-in option, especially since it turns out that the email listings seem to have been among the least accurate information contained in the data you bought? Furthermore, when residents that were to be potentially impacted by property takings for the proposed expansion of 59th Street showed up at a public meeting outraged that the first they had heard of the project was from attorneys soliciting potential clients, Van Ostenbridge never explained that the project had been mentioned in his newsletter or otherwise invited them to subscribe in order to make sure they stay abreast of happenings in his district.
County Attorney Clague came rushing to the defense of Van Ostenbridge and even suggested that the aforementioned law firm, which is also the county s bond counsel, may somehow have a conflict of interest in the matter because of that contract. Clague goes on to say that the firm had since informed him that it had withdrawn from its representation of the clerk. Given the far more lucrative nature of the representation as bond counsel and Clague s musings on a potential conflict, that shouldn t surprise anyone. It was then misreported in another publication that the firm had rescinded its determination and sided with Van Ostenbridge in a June 16 letter. Clearly, it had not and it clarified as much to the clerk s office in another communication obtained by TBT.
Following our initial reporting of the data breach, Van Ostenbridge did in fact reimburse the county for the purchase, and it would be interesting to know whether Clague s advice to him changed once the blunder had been laid out clearly for the public. The commissioner has not, however, apologized to the constituents who now have to worry about their data finding its way into the wrong hands. While some may not think it a major issue, imagine the threat to all of the various employees who serve in positions that require them to limit any sort of public partisanship now that such ""leanings"" and ""affiliations,"" not to mention positions on politically-charged issues (none of which are certain to be accurate) can potentially be used against them, especially in a place as ideologically divisive as Manatee County.
So, once again the public has been negatively affected by a Manatee County Commissioner, and, best case scenario, it was profound irresponsibility/incompetence, worst case, it was much more nefarious. Either way, the public once again gets screwed and, once again, you can bet dollars to donuts that there will be no accountability unless it is delivered at the voting booth. For that to happen, it would seem that enough voters would need to realize that no matter what MAGA mouth sounds these clowns make, at the end of the day, they re just a bunch of goldbrickers whose self-interest will always trump any traditional notion of public service.
Dennis ""Mitch"" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.